A lot of people have written a lot of things so far on the Blue Jackets’ hiring of John Davidson to be President of Hockey Operations. I’ll leave it to others to discuss how this impacts the fans, what is means to the city, etc. What I can talk about regarding this hire, is how it will impact the team directly.
The first place where Davidson will have a major impact is the culture of the organization. This is something that has been in flux for a while now, and with Rick Nash gone, Davidson can step into the void. He is a proven winner, a respected voice, and has a cult of personality that can dominate the spotlight without making it look like he is trying to dominate the spotlight. This allows the players to play, Howson to manage, and Richards to coach, without having to be in the public eye as much. When it comes to culture, Davidson’s Blues teams have always been workmanlike teams with a strong veteran presence. That should carry over to Columbus. He will not allow the ‘country club’ culture that has been persistent in the Jackets history to continue.
Davidson will also help greatly with the perception of Columbus around the league. Look at Sergei Kostitsyn’s comments the other day, Marc Crawford’s comments a few months ago, among many other quotes from people in the game of hockey regarding Columbus. It is incredibly tough to break out of that perception. But it can be done. No one in their right mind would argue that Columbus is a “gloomier” city to live in than Detroit. But Detroit has a reputation around the league as a first class organization and a winner, which trumps the depression that is actually living in Detroit. This is in spite of the fact that Detroit had a fifteen year stretch as the laughingstock of the league, picking up almost as many insulting nicknames (“Dead Wings”) as playoff appearances (two). They brought in respected veteran front office guy Jimmy Devellano from the New York Islanders dynasty, drafted Steve Yzerman (amongst others), and the rest is history. The hire of John Davidson is on par with the Wings hire of Devellano, and with some luck, Ryan Murray could be our Steve Yzerman (not in play, but in personality and impact to the organization). In any case, John Davidson is the first step towards changing the perception of Columbus as the “Island of Misfit Toys”.
In a more direct way, the Blue Jackets will benefit from the additional veteran voice in the decision making process. Columbus has long had one of the smaller front offices in the NHL, and one of the greenest. I have long liked their approach, but more experienced voices have been needed since Don Boyd and Bob Strum were let go last offseason. A veteran like Davidson has seen the ups and downs of many players over the course of his career, and that benefit of that experience is damn near incalculable when trying to properly assess player value. Along with Craig Patrick, Davidson provides the Blue Jackets front office with as much, or more, of this experience than most other franchises currently possess.
Wanting further insight into how exactly Davidson would shape the Blue Jackets on-ice, I went back through every single transaction he oversaw during his time in St. Louis. Obviously, Davidson was not the GM or the Director of Scouting, so he isn’t responsible for each and every move. However, Davidson would have a lot to do with the theory behind every move, and five years provides a large enough sample size to get a pretty good idea of what kind of approach the Jackets will take. Interestingly, I don’t see a huge difference between the approach taken by GM Scott Howson. Draft strategy, asset management, free agent strategy, approach to goaltending, approach to the AHL team, and trade strategy are all quite similar to the current approach taken by the Blue Jackets. We can only hope that Davidson can help the Blue Jackets with the execution of this approach.
Davidson loves his early round picks. From 2006 to 2011, the Blues made 19 1st and 2nd round selections. This has proven very successful, even though 1st overall pick Erik Johnson was tremendously disappointing in a Blues jersey. Beyond acquiring early picks, Davidson’s teams have loved to draft skill. This follows the draft strategy the Blue Jackets have used during Howson’s tenure (2012 excepted). Interestingly, the Blues have not been particularly successful with their later picks under Davidson. From 2005-2011, the Blues non-1st round draft picks have played a total of 71 games, split among 41 players, and only 9 games from players picked later than the 2nd round. Compare this to the Blue Jackets, whose non-1st rounders over the same period have played 666 games, split among 39 players. This is a shocking difference, and it’s more a matter of luck that not a single Blues late rounder has hit over Davidson’s tenure. However, the Blues 1st round picks have seen 1392 games of NHL action, which only includes 37 games from uberprospects David Rundblad, Jaden Schwartz, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Contrast that with Columbus, with their 783 games from 1st rounders over the same period of time.
Notable Blue Jackets remaining from this period: Brassard, Mason, Dorsett, Calvert, Atkinson, Moore, Savard, Johansen, Jenner, Tynan, and Rielly. Compare that to St. Louis: Patrik Berglund, Ian Cole, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo, Phil McCrae, Jake Allen, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Ty Rattie. Yes, the Blue Jackets would basically turn Jakub Voracek (and more) into Jack Johnson, but the Blues turned early draftees Erik Johnson, Aaron Palushaj, and Lars Eller into Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt D’Agostini, and Jaroslav Halak. That is an amazing foundation there for the Blues.
What to expect: a lot of early picks, and a lot of skilled players being selected.
This has been a hallmark of Davidson’s tenure. He has never let a key player walk in free agency, and rarely let any player of substance go as a UFA. In fact, here’s the complete list of players who walked from St. Louis: Patrick Lalime, Kevin Dallman, Mark Rycroft, Jeff Hoggan, Mike Zigomanis, Jesse Boulerice, Dean McAmmond (2006), Radek Dvorak, Curtis Sanford, Jamie Rivers, Dallas Drake, Jon DiSalvatore (2007), Ryan Johnson, Matt Walker, Mike Glumac (2008), Jeff Woywitka, Trent Whitfield, Jay McKee, Manny Legace (2009), Jonas Junland, Chris Mason, Nate Guenin, Mike Weaver (2010), Nick Drazenovic, Nathan Oystrick, Dean Arsene, Tyson Strachan, Graham Mink, Cam Janssen, and Ty Conklin (2011). See anyone notable on there? Radek Dvorak is probably the top player he let go, and he’s probably a good third liner at best.
However, if you look over the Blues moves at the trade deadline, you will see a lot of pending free agents dealt for draft picks. Especially 1st round picks. Famous among these moves was the deal that saw Keith Tkachuk go to Atlanta, only to re-sign in St. Louis a few months later.
What to expect: any pending unrestricted free agent of note to be dealt at the trade deadline for early round draft picks.
Free agent strategy
The Blues have taken a veteran approach to free agency. Most of their signings have been players over the age of 30, and they are signed to short term deals. These quite often end up being the players dealt for draft picks when their contracts expire. The Blues usually filled in in their depth lines with these veterans, as opposed to allowing their youngsters to step into the lineup. This is quite different from how the Blue Jackets have operated over the last few years, as many younger players have walked into roster spots.
What to expect: No James Wisniewski-esque splashes, but a lot of Vinny Prospal-type pick-ups. No more bottom six roster spots given to guys like Matt Calvert, Ryan Johansen, Maksim Mayorov, etc., as they will be filled by veteran UFA’s.
The Blues had spent a very long time bouncing between bargain free agent types (Manny Legace, Curtis Sanford, Chris Mason, Ty Conklin) before dealing Lars Eller (and Ian Schultz) for Jaroslav Halak. Brian Elliott also fits into the bargain model after his lackluster stints in Ottawa and Colorado. The Blues have drafted a goalie about every other season, and not usually very high. AHL stud Jake Allen (34th overall) is the highest they’ve selected a tender, with Jordan Binnington, Niklas Lundstrom, Paul Karpowich, and Reto Berra filling out the list. Fortunately enough, the Blues have had Ben Bishop (drafted before JD’s arrival) in the system.
What to expect: I wouldn’t expect any shake-ups in goal, unless a legitimate Halak-esque player hits the trade block.
Davidson has fairly constantly stocked his AHL rosters with veteran talent, often having NHL experience. He also rarely allows his young draftees to walk into an NHL roster spot without at least spending some time in the AHL. The net in Peoria has been filled with solid prospects as well, as Ben Bishop excelled there before giving way to Jake Allen. This fits pretty close to what the Blue Jackets have done the last couple of seasons, with vets like Alexandre Giroux, Ryan Craig, Martin St. Pierre, Dane Byers, and Curtis McElhinney brought in to mentor the youth.
What to expect: status quo amongst the forwards and defense (a blend of prospects and veterans), with the net giving way to youth once Oscar Dansk, Anton Forsberg, and Joonas Korpisalo make it to North American professional hockey.
When it comes to trades, Davidson has been all about value. Over the course of his tenure with the Blues, there is really only one trade (the Halak trade) in which they made a move to fill a hole on the roster. The rest of his trades seem to break one of two ways. Either it’s an expiring contract for draft picks (gotta load up on those 1st rounders!), or it’s a deal where the Blues were receiving above market value. Examples of these are Lee Stempniak for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo, Doug Weight and spare change for Andy MacDonald (Ducks needed to save money to sign Scott Niedermayer), and the amazing Erik Johnson/Jay McClement/1st for Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk/2nd deal.
What to expect: I think this approach fits with how Howson has operated outside of the two Carter deals and the Nash trade. Very few moves, but only done when the value is right. Unless Luongo opens up to coming to Columbus, or a similar goalie hits the market, I wouldn’t expect Davidson to go chasing a big name.
In summation, I really would not expect too much change from the roster Howson has constructed in Columbus. There are three, maybe four moves that I doubt Davidson would have made: signing Wiz, trading for Carter, trading Carter for Johnson, and possibly the Nash trade (although he may have forced Davidson’s hand too). I think Davidson may have pushed for Galchenyuk over Murray, and probably more skill in the middle rounds of the 2012 draft. I also believe this says a lot about the talent that has been assembled at Nationwide Arena. Davidson got himself a nice buyout from the Blues, and there was no urgent reason for him to take this position. I would have to assume that JD really likes the talent on hand here, and he feels that with a few good moves, some good drafting, and a little patience, he can build a true contender here in Columbus.